Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Being Realistic: How to Avoid Straining Your Readers' Suspension of Disbelief

You know when you're sitting on the couch on a Saturday, and an action flick you really like comes on? It's a lazy day, so you sit there and you watch for a while. You're really enjoying it, and then right when you're about to be fully submerged in the movie the lead spouts some childish nonsense that the censors put in to replace his much more profane catch phrase. That feeling of snapping back to reality and losing interest in what you're looking at is the sensation of your suspension of disbelief snapping.

One of those bad boys goes, they all go.
Whether or not your characters choose to say "fuck" (a topic I've already covered in this blog post) is not the issue; the issue is whether or not the scenario you're painting for your readers is believable. Regardless of how spectacular, or how abnormal the world you're painting is, if the reality you create is detailed enough to pass inspection then readers will accept your more bizarre elements.

But My Story Has Dragons and Sorcery! People Don't Read That For Realism!

Yes they do. This is a common complaint from a lot of writers who think that because their books focus on an extreme form of escapism that they don't have to do the hard work of realistic storytelling. Quite the opposite; writers in more extreme worlds have to be even more realistic in order to get us to swallow the rest of the package without question.

Nope... no questions here.
Here's what I mean by that. Say your story has really big, really hard to swallow elements in it; medieval fantasy in a non-existent world (A Song of Ice and Fire), a globe-spanning tale where a normal man in the modern day gets caught up in the affairs of gods (American Gods), or maybe a pandemic of the living dead practically destroyed civilization as we know it, and later generations have had to adapt (The Newsflesh Trilogy). Now, the more unrealistic the elephant in your living room is, the more in-depth you need to go so that people don't notice it.

The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the setting for a great deal of A Song of Ice and Fire are completely made up. But because George R. R. Martin spins an intricate web of history, and because he built these kingdoms with everything from the symbols on their flags to the countryside they inhabit, they feel like they could be real places.  Because all that work has gone into breathing soul into the setting, no one questions it when dragons are reborn into the world. The same logic applies to Neil Gaiman's American Gods; because such detail is paid to the world these beings inhabit the gods feel like an organic part of that world. As such their presence is accepted by the reader without much question. In The Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant the steps taken to render a world that's survived and altered to grow past zombies becoming a normal thing is occasionally staggering. An entire generation who carries guns everywhere they go, who avoids big meeting places, and who doesn't think twice about taking a dozen or more blood tests every day takes such exhaustive work to detail that when political conspiracy is introduced the reader doesn't even think to question it.

That's what I mean by realism. It doesn't mean you can't have impossible things; it means that those impossible things need to be diced up in such a way that the reader never, ever stops and questions what he or she is being told.

But Stories Are About People!

Right you are again bold, italic text. The world a story is set in, its history and mechanics, are set dressing; if you do it right, the audience will never notice it's there. People are here to see the actors, in this case your characters, solving whatever puzzling plot you've put forth. If characters are flat, boring, or unrealistic though, then readers are going to shut the book and lose interest.

I touched on this a little bit in this blog post here, but realism as it affects a cast is a touchy balancing act at the best of times. Authors need to know who their characters are, what their life experiences have been, and they need to be able to convince the reader through tricky legerdemain that these characters could be real people even though they obviously aren't real. Many times they aren't even people.

So what you're saying is...
As always, examples work best. So let's take a look at the Frankenstein monster. During the monster's pow-wow with its creator in the frozen wastes of the mountains we get its entire life story. We get to see how it goes from being a child in the body of a giant to a thinking, intelligent creature capable of speech, thought, reading and writing. We, as the audience, see how the monster has become who and what it is in a fairly short time frame, and that exposition dump turns the monster from some murderous, savage creature into a being that is trying to make some sense of its life, its feelings, and its power. Nothing we see the monster do ever seems unrealistic because we know him; we know what he wants, how he feels, and how he thinks. He is, for all intents and purposes, real to us. Most importantly his actions are in character.

All characters have histories, and those histories made them who they are. By showing these histories in big and little ways characters' actions become understandable. A schoolteacher who is needlessly harsh on one particular student might seem like a stock bad guy, but if you reveal that the student's parents were rivals or even enemies of the teacher in question then it becomes clear that he simply hasn't been able to put those demons to rest and is extracting a kind of vicarious revenge. While that's still petty, it's believable and kind of sad. It shows that the teacher isn't just some cartoonish villain, but rather is a real person driven by real experiences.

Talking the Talk

Unless someone happens to be H.P. Lovecraft (and you're not), stories are going to have dialogue in them. This is where we get back to the argument about profanity, because if characters deliver dialogue that's bland, boring, or which doesn't fit with their background, education, time period, or world, then readers are going to call bullshit and toss the book sight-unseen over their shoulders.

Just a few examples of this done correctly.
When a character speaks he or she should be recognizable based on word choice, speech pattern and the general ear marks of slang and jargon. I discussed this on the Literary Mercenary's sister blog Improved Initiative right here. A cop who works Hell's Kitchen in New York that was raised in a struggling middle class home should speak differently than a Harvard-educated district attorney, and both of them should sound worlds different from a barbarian warlord from the frozen steppes, or from a space ace from the 52nd century. How do you accomplish that? With words.

Writers need to have an ear for language, and they should be able to research how it's changed over the years. As a quick for instance, no one in Ancient Persia would be called a warlock (here's why). Instead that person would be referred to as a sorcerer or sorceress (again, here's why). Characters who have been in the military will continue using slang they picked up in training, but that language will change based on what conflict someone was involved in and what time period that person served in. In as little as ten years words that are are commonly used like "keen" become the mark of a hopelessly outdated oldster instead of the hip, new way to talk. Lastly, how a person talks gives readers insight into that character. Often times something as simple as a verbal tic, an accent, or just using monosyllables will tell readers all they need to know without an elaborate back story explanation.

Also, don't write dialogue that tries to spell how an accent sounds. This can render entire swaths of page completely unreadable if someone is attempting to write a Scottish, French, or Spanish accent rather than describing the way the words sound in prose. If a reader has to work to translate it, they'll either skip it or stop reading entirely.

Don't Overlook the Little Things

Sometimes disbelief isn't broken by big problems; sometimes it's just that last straw. Accepting a setting where vampires and werewolves are fighting a shadow war in the concrete canyons of the modern day is relatively easy to do. Buying that a character can perform astonishing acrobatics in high heels that are also capable of absorbing a seven-story fall without snapping like twigs? That's a table-flip-we're-done-here offense for some readers.

But it looks cool?
The devil's in the details. If we're following a knight that never cares for his weapons or armor, why aren't they pitted and falling away to rust? If the leader of an entire nation is aware of an uprising of nightmare creatures in the countryside, why would he leave the fate of his people to a teenage wizard instead of calling in the army? If a character is an alien raised by human parents then how do they explain where he came from without a birth certificate, social security card, or any of the other paperwork modern governments worship?

It's the little things that eat away at your credibility. Never assume that something is too small to be noticed; if there's a chink in your story's armor, fix it. Readers need to believe that this world and this story could have happened the way you're telling it; that's the real magic of storytelling.

As always, thanks for stopping in. For those who would like to follow my updates put in your email address in the box in the top right, or follow my Facebook and Tumblr pages. If you'd like to help keep the Literary Mercenary going then go to my Amazon author page to check out my books, leave a donation by clicking the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button, or stop by my Patreon page and donate today!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How to Make an Amazon Author Page (And Why You Should)

Before we get started I'd like to toot my own horn a bit. It seems that Amazing Stories has taken an interest in the anthology Shadows of a Fading World, which was the debut anthology from Long Count Press featuring my short story "Paths of Iron and Blood". To see the nice things the reviewer had to say read the full review here, and if you'd like to buy your own copy (or just read the free sample) you can find it on my Amazon author page.

Don't lie, you know you want one.
What's An Amazon Author Page?

Well, since you asked so nicely I'll be happy to explain. As most authors (and all readers) know, Amazon is the premium destination for books online. Their Kindle is burying opposition like the Barnes and Noble Nook, and Amazon has become the nexus of self-publishing for ebooks. It's even expanded into audio books, and if you want to get in on Amazon's audio book revolution by reading books for money here's an article about Amazon's deal with Audible and iTunes and how you can take advantage of it.

Now because Amazon is just so damned big it's really hard for authors to get noticed. Unless you're already famous, or your books have been positively reviewed thousands of times, you're not going to get discovered very often. The reason for that is Amazon is a marketplace, and if what people want is Dan Brown and 50 Shades of Grey, then that's what's going to show up on the homepage. It's dismal, but the catch-22 of Amazon is that you and your books don't get seen by browsers unless you have a lot of reviews and purchases. Of course, if no one knows you're out there then it's impossible to get those purchases or reviews in the first place.

The Amazon author page is a tool to help authors consolidate their presences on Amazon, and to make themselves easier to discover.

You are here. No, no... over here.
How Does It Work?

The first step in getting an Amazon author page is to go to the Amazon Author Central Homepage right here and to sign up. Once you're signed up the page works like any other form of social media; you upload a photo, give the readers a short description of who you are and what you do, and you tag all of your books. Once you've done that Amazon will make sure to include a link to your profile on every page with one of your books so that if a reader wants to know more they can check you out with the click of a mouse.

In addition to making you easier to find by putting links on all your pages (which is particularly nice if you're in a lot of separate anthologies like I am), this author page also allows you to post links to signings and events you're having. Lastly if you have a blog (and I'm assuming you do) you can plug in the feed on your author profile so that anyone who stops by can see what it is you've been posting about. In short this profile acts as a one stop shop for everything you're creating that you want readers to check out.

What's The Catch?

There is no catch, friends. An Amazon author profile is simply a way to make sure that you can be more easily discovered, that readers can find all of your books instead of just a few, and that you get a chance to tell them where you're going to be and to hook them onto your blog. It's completely free, and costs you nothing more than the effort of signing up and creating an attractive profile for the masses.

Why would Amazon do something like that for authors? After all they're an evil corporation out to maximize profits and become a monopoly, aren't they? Opinions vary, but to answer your question Amazon provides authors with these profiles to help us sell more books. Through Amazon.

Gasp. Shock.
I've said this two or three times now; Amazon is here to sell books. They don't care what books they sell, as long as they get a cut of the action. If you write five novels, and one of them becomes a break-out success, Amazon wants an easy way to direct all those new and eager fans to your other books so they, and by extension you, can make more sales. By creating this tool they're helping authors to become more visible because more visibility means higher sales, and higher sales means more profits all around. You win, they win, everybody wins.

Do you have to do this to succeed? No, of course you don't. But while it's possible to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, it's easier to flick a Bic and call it a day. Why work any harder than you have to, especially when you've already put so much effort into getting books on the market in the first place?

As always, thanks for dropping by the Literary Mercenary. Like what you see? If so then join our email list by leaving your address in the upper right hand corner, or checking me out on Facebook and Tumblr for regular updates. If you'd like to pay the sellsword's fees, well you can leave a donation in the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button through Paypal, or check me out on my Patreon page.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Profanity in Fiction: When it's Okay to Say "Fuck"

Anyone who loves banned books week as much as I do (at least partially because it always sneaks up on me) is aware of what the top three reasons for books being deemed "objectionable" are. In no particular order they are; sex, violence, and profanity. While we could go on endlessly about the first two, let's focus on the third. Profanity.

What's the Big Fucking Deal?

If I had a nickel... I sure as fuck wouldn't put it in there.
Profanity causes a lot of arguments in fiction. On the Don't Say That side of the line we have people who consider profanity to be low-class, cheap, and offensive. These readers may shut a book and refuse to finish it if the author uses profanity in the book, and they may also attempt to get the book banned from a library. Readers on this side of the line also tend to trumpet the defense of the young and impressionable, claiming that if they aren't old enough to use that kind of language then they shouldn't be reading books with those words in them either. Whether one agrees with these sentiments or not they're important to consider because there are a lot of readers who feel this way, and pissing off readers is a good way to shoot your career in the foot.

The other side of the argument is made up of the That's How People Talk camp. Think about when you watch a rated-R movie on TV, and the hero's profane one-liner is turned into a kid-friendly ad lib. Cleaning up the language characters are using in a book is sort of like that; readers know what they mean, but the characters are denied their preferred forms of verbal punctuation. I call this pulling the punch, and it refers to taking any action that alters a story with no intention other than making the person reading it feel less uncomfortable. Generally it doesn't serve to make the story better, and many times it can make what was a poignant exchange seem juvenile. This side of the line tends to be readers who admit that while the use of profanity is vulgar, it is still a tool that can be used to great effect in a book.

How Profanity Has Changed Over The Years

There was an old piece of writing advice from Mark Twain that suggested writers replace every use of "very" with the word "damn" because the editor will simply delete all the unnecessary terms. It was meant to show that "very" is a lazy word choice (which it is), but it also let people know that "damn" would rarely if ever be allowed into a completed manuscript.

That changed in the 1960s.

Along with pretty much everything else.
Somewhere between the beat generation and the creation of the hippie language was allowed to be more honest. Rather than characters "swearing oaths" or "cursing under their breath" the author would simply tell us what was said. People said "shit", and "goddamn", and even the previously-unpublishable "fuck". The spirit of the times was reflected in the books produced, though as mentioned in this article by Jo Walton featured on here, it took genre fiction until the 1980s for space opera soldiers and fantasy knights to say fuck with some real confidence. Part of that was that people dropped metaphors that had commonly been used in fiction up to that point, and part of it was that profanity was much more commonly used in day-to-day language. So there was really a two-pronged evolution going on in regards to the profane.

So What The Fuck Should I Do?

Oh for fuck's sake...
What you should do as an author when it comes to profanity varies depending on the book you're writing. For instance, if someone is writing a modern-day story then it's important to use the language of the day, complete with slang. If you're writing from the perspective of a character then the observations we see will be colored by that character's personality and thought process. On the other hand, it's entirely possible to make characters that are terrible people without making them vulgar. Annie Wilkes, the main character of Stephen King's Misery is a horrifying character whose abuse of the lead Paul Sheldon borders on the level of atrocity. She never swears though, and in fact finds the whole notion of putting profanity into a book to be offensive even if she's perfectly willing to cut someone's legs off so he can't escape.

If you've invented your own world though, then what is considered profane is also up to your discretion. Whether it's the manufactured swear word "frell" in the television show Farscape or it's the particularly vicious swear word "bags" preferred by the wizard Zedd in the Sword of Truth series, you don't have to use a real-world four-letter word to let the reader know what's going on.

Put the "Profane" in "Profanity"

In 1944 the infamous observer of American culture H.L. Mencken noted that cursing had been going out of style since the Civil War. According to Mencken the problem was the anything truly profane had been seeing less use, and that people were replacing blasphemous oaths with short, four-letter words that lacked any real profanity in them. Sure "fuck" and "shit" are short, punchy words that can be easily barked, but are they really profane?

Where the fuck are you going with this?
One way to avoid a lot of the fist-shakers and wrist-slappers is to get truly old-school with your oaths. Whether you're writing fantasy or sci-fi, historical romance or a period piece, take a few gems from this article on old-timey swear words. Phrases like "Gods wounds" (shortened to Shakespeare's infamous "zounds") or one of my favorites "God's nails" are unique and visceral. Other old-fashioned oaths starts with "by the", which is part of the formula of someone actually swearing to do or not do something to a divine figure. This is particularly poignant in fantasy, where such oaths can be binding ones.

In order for something to be profane it has to invoke the divine somehow. Worlds with more colorful divinities will simply have more colorful profanity to go with them.

Profanity is Just a Tool

I've referred to profanity as verbal punctuation, and that's very true. To paraphrase Lewis Black, these are the words that adults use to express rage, frustration, and anger. As an author it's important for you to paint as honest a picture as you can. Does that mean you need to linger on every torn apart corpse in a murder scene, or every moment of passion between two lovers? No, not if it isn't making a point.

Profanity is the same way.

Do you have to use profanity to make a point in a story? Is it required to make a character properly repulsive, or hard-ass, or rebellious? No, you don't have to, but sometimes profanity is just the simplest, most straightforward way to make a fucking point.

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